Autobiographical Memory in a Fire-Walking Ritual

Dimitris Xygalatas, Uffe Schjoedt, Joseph Bulbulia, Ivana Konvalinka, Else-Marie Elmholdt Jegindø, Paul Reddish, Armin W. Geertz, Andreas Roepstoff

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articleResearchpeer-review


Abstract Anthropological theories have discussed the effects of participation in high-arousal rituals in the formation of autobiographical memory; however, precise measurements for such effects are lacking. In this study, we examined episodic recall among participants in a highly arousing fire-walking ritual. To assess arousal, we used heart rate measurements. To assess the dynamics of episodic memories, we obtained reports immediately after the event and two months later. We evaluated memory accuracy from video footage. Immediately after the event, participants’ reports revealed limited recall, low confidence and high accuracy. Two months later we found more inaccurate memories and higher confidence. Whereas cognitive theories of ritual have predicted flashbulb memories for highly arousing rituals, we found that memories were strongly suppressed immediately after the event and only later evolved confidence and detail. Physiological measurements revealed a spectacular discrepancy between actual heart rates and self-reported arousal. This dissociation between subjective reports and objective measurements of arousal is consistent with a cognitive resource depletion model. We argue that expressive suppression may provide a link between individual memories and cultural understandings of high-arousal rituals.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Cognition and Culture
Issue number1-2
Pages (from-to)1-16
Publication statusPublished - 2013


  • Flashbulb
  • Expressive suppression
  • Arousal
  • Episodic memory
  • Fire-walking
  • Ritual


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